We asked our current graduate students what advice they would give themselves or other new students coming to study in the Department. What would they have liked to have known at the start of their PhD/MPhil? These are their answers, in no particular order:
- If you are confused, ask for help. Everyone knows that new students are lost, but it is difficult to help them if they don’t ask. Some tasks that new students struggle with for weeks can be done by a more experienced person in ten minutes. Shyness wastes time.
- Make sure you establish a work-life balance that works for you. Doing a PhD is different to writing your Master’s dissertation: it’s more of a marathon than a sprint, so you’ll have to pace yourself. Do what works for you, not what others do. I am a morning person, so usually am in the office between 7 and 7.30, but am hardly there past 4pm. This includes finding something that takes your mind off your PhD (sports are great, or dancing, or walking, baking – anything!).
- It might be tough at times, so make friends that are in the same position.
- Agree a supervision schedule/plan that works for both you and your supervisors. Remind them if they forget things – they’re only people, and often busy.
- Send your work to your supervisors for feedback, even if you think it’s rubbish. They’re there to help you. Don’t wait until you think it’s perfect (they probably disagree).
- Don’t even aim for something perfect, aim for something good that will get you your degree. It’s only your MPhil/PhD, so it either will get you where you want to go (if you’re not staying in academia) or is unlikely to be the most ground-breaking work you’ll ever do (if you do stay in academia).
- It’s not failure if you decide not to stay in academia, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.
- Be kind to yourself, and to others.
- Form lunch groups. At Addenbrookes, the Clinical School cafeteria is better than the main one. There’s a shortcut to the canteen if you pass through the main hospital instead of going around.
- Comment your code, and write as few lines of it as humanly possible. If you’re bored, spend a day commenting and rewriting your old scripts to make them better. This saves time in the long run.
- If you feel terrible after your first-year viva, get a massage or a cup of hot cocoa. Ignore the people that don’t feel terrible.
- There are lots of lecture series and training around Cambridge. Even if talks are not specifically in your field I would strongly encourage students to attend a lot of these as they not only broaden your horizon they have always given me inspiration for new project and in general they can be helpful to get a fresh perspective on things. In addition to their academic function they are usually a great place to socialise and meet people from other labs and fields. So definitely have a look on the talks.cam website and just go and attend. Some of the psychology ones (such as the Zangwill and Chaucer) come with a social event around it and sometimes offer the option to have dinner with one of the speakers. Which is of course a great way to socialise with some world renowned academics. In general its very easy to do a deep-dive into your niche topic and come out of that with other interests without knowing how to even begin developing those interests. So you might as well keep as much of an open mind as time allows while you have access to great people and resources in Cambridge.
- To a lot of people, Cambridge can seem quite overwhelming and the “imposter syndrome” is a well documented occurrence in Cambridge, for no good reason in my opinion. Everyone struggles with the same issues and usually the best way out of them is to ask for help so do’t be afraid to ask around! If you’re struggling with a problem in your research whether technical or theoretical that you can figure out with members from your own lab then go and talk to other labs. This will of course vary from lab to lab but in my experience most (if not all) PI’s in Psychiatry tend to be quite open and inclusive and generally don’t mind if you go elsewhere for specific help. Other than word-of-mouth there are some more formal places to go for help such as the statistics clinic run by the DAMTP (http://www.statslab.cam.ac.uk/clinic/) and lots of spread out wiki-pedia pages from different labs.
- Don’t be afraid to do internal presentations. Most labs in the Department have regular lab meetings or talks and are always looking for speakers. This is probably the least threatening environment to trial new ideas and/or seek feedback for current ideas. No one in the Department is out to tackle other people and as hard as it sometimes feels feedback is never a reflection of you as a person but 99% of the time is genuinely meant to be constructive criticism. Even if you don’t agree with comments, these local meetings are a pretty safe environment to practice your presentation skills and they will prove invaluable once you have to go into the ‘real-world’ to give a presentation.
- There are lots of social opportunities that are not always particularly well advertised. CamBrain is probably the best organised, but apart from that there are some more loosely organised social activities (for example there is an occasional Friday drinks WhatsApp group (mostly spearheaded by Micah), there is a small group of people in the Department that regularly try to do some bouldering (mostly an e-mail chain started by Micah/Joanna/Richard) and there is a running group (talk to Maggie/Paul Fletcher)).
- There are lots of opportunities to get involved in governance of the University/School/Department from helping organise the annual symposium to being a representative on the faculty board. From my own experience these roles don’t require a lot of time but can provide a very worthwhile experience and they give you an interesting understanding of how things run in the University. I would also encourage signing up to the graduate student and post-doc forum (GRASP) they have a strong voice in the graduate school and occasionally organise some interesting events.
For library services:
- The University library has a site for Master’s students, but may also be useful to students who are new to Cambridge and the resources available
- The Research Support links at the Clinical School Library’s website are useful (in particular sections under critical appraisal – but it’s a nicely populated list of resources).
- Also, the Clinical School librarians hold information clinics where they help individuals optimise search strategies for anyone thinking about writing a manuscript/review, on a 1:1 basis. More information can be found here
For training/transferable skills:
- To learn about the Researcher Development Program at Cambridge and the ways it can help identify areas an individual may want to develops
- ScienceCareers has a devised a way to keep track of one’s career goals, which involves using and Individual Development Plan. It is not recommended by the university (to my knowledge), but I have found it particularly useful towards the transition between doctoral to post-degree planning.
- Understand the ways in which one works best by taking the Myers-Briggs test. The test can cost hundreds of pounds if paid for out-of-pocket, but it is provided for by the university at Training.cam.ac.uk (as of Oct 2018, the course is titled ‘MBTI: Understanding Personality’. Why not take the all-day course with colleagues to learn about ways to support one another?
- Another course that several departments have recommended to incoming/first year research students is the course “The Art of Negotiation and Influence (GSLS). I’ve taken it myself and found it to be well-run, useful, a good use of a day’s time (which is required for the course) and liked by students attending from other departments as well.